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Fixing Illinois can be done, but it will take time

Here’s a start: Put fiscal house in order, revamp revenue system, end state’s culture of corruption

Published: Saturday, May 3, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

When we were boys in the 1950s, we were proud to be from wealthy, self-confident Illinois.

Today, many of us in Illinois are in a funk. When we travel and mention we are from Illinois, there are disparaging responses about our governors being in jail.

Polling confirms our worries that others don’t think much of us.

Illinois was the second most “disliked” state in the nation, after California, according to a 2012 survey by Public Policy Polling.

Nor do we think much of our own government. A Gallup survey released in April found that, by a wide margin, Illinois residents have less trust in our state government than residents in any state in the nation.

Unfortunately, in the face of those factors, Illinois doesn’t know where it is going. We have no statewide plans or planning function to challenge us with grand visions for the future. Instead, we lurch from year to year.

That is why we set out to write a book about how to fix Illinois.

First, we need to appreciate the state’s great strengths, which are the envy of the most states.

For example, our transportation infrastructure is second to none. We have 2,300 miles of interstate highways, far more than most states. O’Hare was recently named the best-connected airport in the nation for both domestic and international flights.

In addition, upward of half of all intermodal rail freight traffic in the nation flows through the Chicago region.

As for workforce talent, Illinois ranks second among the big states for having 32 percent of its population with bachelor’s degrees or higher.

And, of course, there is our heartland location. Our trucks and rail cars can reach much of the nation’s markets in a day’s time.

Finally, there is metropolitan Chicago, a three-state, 11-million-person market that fostered far more business facility deals in 2013 than any other metro area, according to Site Selection magazine.

So, what to do to reclaim our glory days?

First, we need to get our state government’s fiscal house in order. Business needs predictability and stability; in Illinois, we have neither. We don’t need higher tax rates. Instead, we need a revenue base that responds to economic growth.

Using history as a guide, state spending is projected to grow about 3.7 percent a year on average, while revenue is projected to grow at 2.3 percent, according to the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs. That is a recipe for persistent instability.

We need to slow spending for Medicaid, our huge health care system for lower-income residents. Putting many recipients on private health insurance coverage may do this.

Our revenue system needs to be revamped. We need to broaden the bases of our sales and income taxes, which will increase their rate of growth, and then we can also reduce our tax rates.

To improve our poor business climate, we must reduce our 9.5 percent corporate income tax rate and make further changes in the high cost of our workers’ compensation.

And we have to address our culture of corruption in Illinois, which gives us such a bad name beyond our borders and leaves such a sour taste in our mouths. Cultures can be changed, as with smoking, which is no longer cool.

Yet, this takes time. In the shorter term, we have to convince others – and ourselves – that government is a public trust, not a public trough.

Illinois celebrates its bicentennial in 2018. Now is a perfect time to begin planning for a celebration of all that Illinois can be, once again.

Note to readers: James Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson are former presidents of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois. Their book, “Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State,” is a primer on Illinois state government with 90-plus suggestions for change.

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